A look at the trenches

A look at the trenches

  • Front line trench: group of hairy men in front of the entrance to a shelter, Hirtzbach, June 16, 1916.

    CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

  • Frontline trench: observer, Hirtzbach, June 16, 1916.

    CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

  • Front line trench: observation post, Hirtzbach, June 16, 1916.

    CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

To close

Title: Front line trench: group of hairy men in front of the entrance to a shelter, Hirtzbach, June 16, 1916.

Author : CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

Creation date : 1916

Date shown: June 16, 1916

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Autochrome

Storage place: Architecture and heritage multimedia library website

Contact copyright: © Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnausite web

Picture reference: 07-534201 / CA000500

Frontline trench: group of hairy men in front of the entrance to a shelter, Hirtzbach, June 16, 1916.

© Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnau

To close

Title: Frontline trench: observer, Hirtzbach, June 16, 1916.

Author : CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

Creation date : 1916

Date shown: June 16, 1916

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Autochrome

Storage place: Architecture and heritage multimedia library website

Contact copyright: © Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnausite web

Picture reference: 07-534202 / CA000501

Frontline trench: observer, Hirtzbach, June 16, 1916.

© Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnau

To close

Title: Front line trench: observation post, Hirtzbach, June 16, 1916.

Author : CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

Creation date : 1916

Date shown: June 16, 1916

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Autochrome

Storage place: Architecture and heritage multimedia library website

Contact copyright: © Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnausite web

Picture reference: 08-518076 / CA000503

Front line trench: observation post, Hirtzbach, June 16, 1916.

© Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnau

Publication date: April 2009

Historical context

Alsace as a goal

The European war, which seemed inevitable to all, was to last only a few weeks, long enough to triumph over the enemy once and for all. War of movement gives way to war of attrition: soldiers settle into a long, uninterrupted battle, punctuated by waiting and watching the enemy more than by offensives.

Even if it was the cinema that embodied the real novelty in documenting the real world of war, photography played a major role in military strategy (scouting) and in the cultural mobilization of frontline soldiers or civilians of the back. For these images he uses the Autochrome process patented by the Lumière brothers in 1903 and marketed in 1907, which requires a certain exposure time, unlike the portable black and white film cameras that many soldiers use in the trenches, despite the prohibitions. .

Image Analysis

The trenches in the lens

The fourteen men immortalized by Paul Castelnau in front of their shelter offer a typical group cliché by rendering the collective cohesion and the individuation of each of the combatants. Thus, the photographer took care to place at the center of the composition the men, framed by a nature transformed for the needs of the war; and in the midst of them, the only black soldier. The latter wears not the khaki uniform of the colonial navy troops, which became widespread in the spring of 1918, but the horizon blue garb of his combat comrades, which almost blends in with the pale blue of the summer sky. The photo also shows the structure of a narrow trench, which ends here in a cul-de-sac at a shelter indicated by its sign and supported by large beams. Summer makes wattling the trail unnecessary for now, but justifies the network of planks that keep the dry clods from crumbling.

In the photograph of an observer "in action", weeds grow in spite of the bombardments, and the wood is used to contain the soil, friable or liquid, a solid wall as well as a threat of burial. The shot this time features a man engaged in war - watching the enemy, so close and entrenched. The inclination of his body, the gaze into the distance, the tension of the leg, indicate at the same time the effort to concentrate his attention, the will to move forward, the discipline at the post.

The third Autochrome reveals another facet of the same silent battle, capturing soldiers from afar and from behind more naturally on the alert than the previous one. The reason they have left their rifles idle is because they are not posing but are watching for a beyond the trench that the photographer is unable to capture. Located near a protective forest whose tangled roots made it difficult to dig the shelter, the barrier against the enemy appears in all its magnitude: felled trees, barbed wire clearly visible, corrugated iron and sandbags. piled up. The well-ordered combination of these elements and the wait-and-see pose of the figures suggest that time has stood still on this part of the western front.

Interpretation

A war of observation

With the six shots he took in Hirtzbach, Castelnau wanted to capture some of the most dangerous places on the front lines; another autochrome even shows the plain, invaded by grass and barbed wire, which serves as a no man’s land. The wood that appears in all its colors on the third Autochrome is not only used for the play of light that Castelnau likes. Oriented north-west / south-east, this forest protects the second rank of villages when you enter Alsace through Franche-Comté.

The trenches, true symbols of this conflict, initially consist of simple guts the height of a man. Then the shoring of deeper trench planks, the digging of casemates, the use of concrete, the establishment of a hierarchical system of trenches with a specific role, the networks of barbed wire in front make any breakthrough almost impossible. The traditional representation of the trench is almost inseparable from the mud, the soldier's worst enemy; but it’s summer, the mud has turned to dust again. Castelnau’s mission in France was also concentrated during the summers of 1916 and 1917, in order to benefit from the abundant light required by the long process of autochrome. If the shelters in the first and third shots seem shallow and the trench unimportant, it is because they were taken in the front line, in the heart of an observation trench, much less consolidated than the defense trenches located a few meters back.

The photographer wanted to show how the hairy people defend a (meager) portion of reconquered national soil. He had the squad landed at his post that day, immortalizing together and without visible hierarchy the "buddies", gazing straight at the objective. He also photographed a war action (the guard) and mimicked the lookout effort. This unspectacular war was the everyday, sometimes peaceful, often restless, sometimes deadly daily life of the frontline observation posts. But the reassuring colors of summer, the smiles frozen by the length of exposure of the autochrome technique, the surprising calm, undermine the effort of authenticity of propaganda clichés masquerading as documentary information.

  • War of 14-18
  • hairy
  • propaganda
  • trenches

Bibliography

Jean-Jacques BECKER, World War I, Paris, Belin, 2008 (reed.) Rémy CAZALS, In the trenches of 14-18, Pau, Cairn, 2008 Laurent GERVEREAU and alii, Show war? Information or propaganda, Paris, CNDP, 2006. Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "A look at the trenches"


Video: Front Lines - The Trenches